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After failing to be re-elected to the bench in his home state of Maine in 1948, Judge Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy) is sent to Germany, to deal with members of the judiciary who served under the Nazi regime and adhered to their heinous laws, sentencing many innocents to die. The principal defendant, Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster) broods in silence until compelled to react to defence attorney Rolfe's (Maximilian Schell) brutal interrogation of Irene Hoffman (Judy Garland), a housefrau challenged to defend her past relationship with an elderly Jew. As the trial draws to a close, the Russians move to blockade Berlin. The Americans need the Germans on side and so political pressure mounts for Haywood and pugnacious prosecutor Colonel Lawson (Richard Widmark) to go easy on the four accused.

Review by Keith Lofthouse:
Sometimes it takes a catastrophe like the Indian Ocean tsunami (Christmas 2005) for the X, Y and Z generations to realise that misery and suffering has nothing to do with the Melbourne Storm or the Sydney Swans losing a vital match on a wintry afternoon. Older folk have seen the world at its worst and films like Judgment At Nuremberg chronicle a calamitous time when the wave of terror wrought by a crooked cross provoked a World War that claimed a staggering 55 million lives. Yes, we have seen the tsunami victims, shrouded in body bags in their open graves and our hearts ache, but we are reminded that the six million Jews who died for Hitler's insanity were denied even the most basic of dignities. Many were shot where they stood and either toppled or were kicked into the very ditches they themselves had dug. Millions died of abuse in the concentration camps or were led naked and terrified to the gas chambers; their corpses reduced to ashes in the ovens.

Stanley Kramer's film includes newsreel footage of the Nazi atrocities, or at least their aftermath. The images are familiar but they never cease to shock. The judiciary, represented by the remorseful Janning and his associates were not directly responsible, but they had effectively legalised Hitler's policies of genocide and condoned them by choosing to remain on the bench, rather than step down as others had done. Prosecutor Lawson pushes for maximum retribution: "They never had to pull the levers...but these defendants executed laws and rendered judgments that sent millions to their destinations." Rolfe is even more fervent in their defence: "A judge does not make the law. He carries out the law of his country. Should he refuse, he becomes a traitor!"

But the film is more than a duel between exponents of dry legal debate and Kramer does a remarkable job of sustaining the drama for three solid hours, beyond the histrionics of counsel and above the sometimes glib reasoning of Abby Mann's Oscar winning screenplay. He has Tracy, in his third to last film, to thank for that. As usual, he seems to work with consummate ease; he is firm, compassionate, sensitive, forthright, but his brilliance is subtle. Watch him squirm when Mme. Bertholt (Marlene Dietrich) tries to draw him into discussion of the trial; watch the hackles rise when colleague Curtiss Ives (Ray Teal) mistakes his silence in chambers for disinterest and see him deny Janning the absolution he craves with a stinging rebuttal. First presented at half the length as a TV drama in 1959, only Schell retains his original role in the expanded version, a composite of the actual trials, which creates a new character for Dietrich as the cultured widow of a Nazi general who was executed as a war criminal.

One respected critic famously dismissed the film as an "all star concentration camp drama, with special guest-victim appearances." Kramer would have preferred to use unknowns in the court-room cameos but United Artists had refused to finance this "downbeat and uncommercial" project unless marquis names like Garland, Dietrich, and Montgomery Clift, as a cruelly sterilised victim, took the stand. The casting was endorsed, it seems, by the Academy. Schell won an Oscar; Tracy, Garland and Clift were nominated, though much of Clift's performance was improvised. Long term abuse of booze and drugs meant that Clift's mental and physical faculties were failing and he couldn't remember his lines. Tracy urged him to "look into my eyes and play to me," which helped nurture him through. Lancaster (replacing Laurence Olivier who was then preparing to marry Joan Plowright) has the same brooding demeanour he adopted for The Birdman Of Alcatraz the next year. That won him an Oscar but this did not. For most of the time the scholarly Janning observes proceedings with a kind of surly disdain.

Kramer too clearly sets him up for a tumultuous moment but when it comes, Lancaster's expression remains rigid. One suspects that Olivier might have done more with less. Kramer's biggest mistake, however, was holding the premiere in Berlin. He was greeted by an ominous headline: "The Jew Kramer Returns To Remind Us" and the silence which marked the film's debut was more resentment than respect. It wasn't released in Germany until after Holocaust became a hit on local television 20 years later but still, they did not wish to remember. And they were in no mood for Janning's mea culpa: "We who knew (of Germany's) guilt must admit it. Where were we? If we didn't know the details, it was because we didn't want to know."

Published February 17, 2005

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(US, 1961)

CAST: Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Maximilian Schell, Richard Widmark

DIRECTOR: Stanley Kramer

SCRIPT: Abby Mann

RUNNING TIME: 178 minutes

PRESENTATION: 1.66:1 Languages: English, German, French, Italian, Spanish. Subtitles: French, Dutch, Finnish, Greek, Romanian. English for the hearing impaired.


DVD DISTRIBUTOR: MGM Home Entertainment

DVD RELEASE: July 14, 2004

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